The New York City bicycle messengers have ridden fixed gear bicycles for years. The ultimate bike for them was a track bike; single speed “fixed” gear, no brakes. Movies have shown the messengers darting in and out of traffic, holding on to taxis and buses and portraying themselves as bicycle outlaws, if not scofflaws.
This minimalist bicycle has now gained resurgence among colleges and urban centers. The bikes have fewer parts to break or wear, cost less and are less desirable to a thief, or at least were so before the new found popularity. This article will explain what all the hoopla is about and how this unusual bike can be a valuable part of an adult recreational cyclist’s stable of bikes.
First, let’s discuss some background on this interesting bicycle to explain how it got to be in the place it occupies today. Bicycles in the late 1800s all had single speed “fixed” gears and the “freewheel” didn’t arrive until the early 20th century. When people are not familiar with a fixed gear bike, they wonder “How can you stop it?” and “Can you coast?” I like to use the analogy of a child’s tricycle to explain. The tricycle has the pedals and cranks directly attached to the front wheel and when you pedal, the trike moves forward and when you resist the pedals it slows. This is exactly how a track bike with no brakes can change speeds.
When bike racers are riding a track bike on a velodrome they all are riding bikes with no brakes so nobody can slow down any quicker than the next person. This allows a group of riders to coexist safely on the banks of the track. When one rides a track bike on the road with no brakes other than the braking ability of resisting the pedals, the situation is changed. Bike messengers think it is extremely cool to ride a bike in traffic with no brakes. They tend to be expert riders who are able to plan ahead well enough to avoid collisions in most cases, however. What makes this concept interesting is when a college student or recreational rider with undeveloped skills goes out in traffic on one of these machines and cannot deal with the limitations. This is not only incredibly dangerous but is madness! Many cities such as Austin, TX are banning “fixies” without brakes from their urban environment for legitimate safety reasons.
I have a track bike that I race on the velodrome and I also have another I ride on the road. How can it be done safely? The answer is simple; I installed a front brake on the road fork and I now have a bike that can stop as easily as any other. It also has the advantages of a fixed gear that I am about to discuss which revolutionizes my training and riding experience. It can for you as well.
Fixed gear road bikes were actually used in the Tour de France until the 1930s. The organizers knew that the single speed bike was much more challenging than multiple geared bikes and thus outlawed the “sissy” bikes for years. These bikes actually had two gears. The rear wheel had what was called a “flip-flop” hub that had a cog on each side. The smaller cogs were used on the flats and descents while a larger cog (read: lower gear) was used to climb the mountains. The riders had to stop at the bottom of steep climbs and remove the rear wheel, flipping it around and installing it with the lower gear. They climbed the mountain, stopped at the top and reversed the process.
As a side note, Tullio Campagnolo invented the “quick release skewer” in 1927 which not only made the business of repairing flats easier in races but revolutionized the switching of wheels in races like the Tour de France. Riders had a huge advantage with the quick release rather than dealing with the wing nuts which were the standard issue.
Enough about background! Why in the world would an adult recreational cyclist want to train with a fixed gear bike? I think a better answer exists than the one Sir Edmund Hillary used when asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest. (The answer was, “Because it is there.”) The answer lies in the concept of cycling as the Fountain of Youth: intensity.
While we spend much time discussing the best ways to shift gears, we don’t spend a lot of time working on pedaling and cadence. With a fixed gear, you are relieved of the worries of gear selection as you only have one! Well, you aren’t exactly relieved of the gear selection worries, you just are when riding! It is very important to choose the right gear before the ride.
Assuming that you agree that intensity is a key ingredient to enjoying cycling as a way to stay young, and the fact that as we age we tend to get busier rather than less busy, a fixed gear bike is an incredible way to pack an awesome workout into a short timeframe. The reason is this: a 30-mile ride on a road bike will have a significant amount of coasting involved. 30 miles on a fixed gear is 30 miles! Additionally there is a bonus that is not available on regular road bikes: spinning down hills.
When I take the fixie out on the road around San Antonio I have to choose my gears so I can make it up the hills and still be able to hang on after the hill is crested. It is an interesting challenge to think about the ride before it happens so the proper gear can be chosen. I have a collection of chain rings and cogs so I have learned over time which gears work and which ones don’t. This is one of the best parts of cycling. We can “fail” by doing something like a poor gear selection and the worst thing that can happen is we may have to walk up a hill, hit the brakes on a descent, or get dropped by the other riders. That “failure” is what makes us learn. This is why we train and why cycling is so incredible.
Every time I ride the fixie I am entranced by the elegance and simplicity of a bicycle. It is astonishing to think that this same type of bike was ridden over incredible distances and unbelievable terrain by cyclists just like us, but born in a different day. The options are simple. Pedal faster, go faster. Pedal slower, go slower. When the hill comes, your energy is what gets you over the top with the tools you have chosen before the ride. When you crest the hill and everyone else is coasting your real job has begun, the descent which turns your legs into a whirling dervish. At the end of the ride you know you have really accomplished something.
This feeling of accomplishment is what gets cyclists up in the morning to challenge the elements, the traffic and their demons and ultimately makes us different than other sedentary people. Cyclists are truly a hardy breed and amazingly we can become cyclists at any point in life.
I know that this article may not convert all of you into fixed gear fanatics but I hope you gain some perspective as to how we attain the Fountain of Youth. It is through efforts that exceed our limits and recovery, as our bodies respond by getting stronger and more capable. A fixed gear bike is not the only way to fitness but it certainly is an interesting one!